tv Tavis Smiley PBS September 22, 2010 12:00am-12:30am EDT
a conversation with actor tim robbins about his play about jamestown over 100 -- 400 years ago. his play is called "break the whip" and is produced by a very successful theater company, the actors gain. if we are glad you have joined us. a conversation with tim robbins is coming up right now. >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i am james. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference, you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance proudly supports tavis smiley. tavis and nationwide insurance, working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> ♪ nationwide is on your side ♪ >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television]
rehearsal to check this out. -- to check this out, i had no idea what i was going to see. imagine a piece about jamestown that does not mention pocahontas or -- >> or john smith. tavis: i was talking to our producer. i was curious how many times you have been on the program. you have been here a few times now and the majority of your appearances on our show have been to promote plays that you have been involved in, interestingly. not to promote movies, which we know you do in so well. of course, we see you in "bashar shaikh redemption" every night on some channel -- "shawshank redemption of" every night on some channel. you have a wonderful theater group. >> it is a wonderful group
called the actors' gang. we have been together 28 years now. it is more than just a theater company. we work with our community on various projects. when i get to work on theater with them is such an honor and privilege because i am able to bring them the stuff that i will immediately know what the problems are in the riding because they are so good. they bring a level of truth to their work that is unparalleled, i think. tavis: so, they can be honest with tim robbins. it affects the honesty is what you see on stage. -- >> the honesty is what you see on stage. tavis: [laughter] i said earlier, no john smith, no pocahontas. how would you describe, without giving anything away, what this play is? >> we studied some history last summer and i have them read the
history text and we went with the columbus discovery, jamestown, and pre revolutionary war boston. everyone gets in costume and it masks from time to time. and we explored that time and the one that was the most interesting was jamestown because it is really the birth of what we know to be the spirit of america. the aristocracy had settled there as a business venture, but more, the white indentured servants and the native americans, who from the very start, had common ground. they passed laws about fraternization. it was illegal to talk to any indian if you were a white indentured. and within 10 years the first africans landed in jamestown. not a lot of people know that. there is a great text called the birth of black america that we read. in fact, the blacks from the
very start had common ground with the white indentured and that is why the laws were passed about no communication between the two because the aristocracy knew there would be common ground to be shared. of course, in our workshop, we discovered this was a love story. it was a story about the unrelenting spirit that sought common ground from the very start. and in fact, the very first people to escape jamestown started families with the indians. tavis: someone watching right now here's you referred to jamestown as -- can hear you referred to jamestown as where the spirit of america comes from my gets -- might get confused for because -- when we talk about it is a powerful narrative. we know the story of the immigrant class coming through ellis island. it is a powerful story and a wonderful narrative.
we all know the words etched on the statue of liberty -- bring me your tired, your poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. the we know that as largely the founding of this country. why is it we know that story so well and we do not know the jamestown story? >> i guess because the historians did not feel it was a -- an important enough story. before us, our janet -- for us, our genetic roots to this store were very strong. we found that the finding were r and meaningful than when you read "there was this colony" and there was this time of starvation, etc. when you read that within two days of the landing a white had escaped to take his chances out
there, we were very curious about who that person was. there was no name. we cannot say this is historically accurate, but we do know they left because they were seeking something better. isn't that the story of america facts is in doubt the story of our western expansion? isn't that the story of the idea of a servin class from england would eventually become the middle-class and would eventually become the upper class. the idea of progressing forward with the human spirit as your guide and not necessarily as the merchant class and business ventures that were failing at the time in jamestown, in fact, saved when the first africans came who had the superior knowledge in raising livestock. i have had people ask me why i bring the africans in because they do not come until much later.
they do not even know that themselves. we were interested in that story, the story of the anonymous, the vanquished, muted voices. tavis: i was sitting in the audience at the rehearsal watching this. my mind was all over the place. of one of the thoughts i had was the interesting juxtaposition of the first african-american president being in the white house now, lynn self is biracial. you know where i am going -- who himself is biracial. you know where i am going, of course. and then you have jamestown back in the 1600's. if it is an interesting journey to ride at this place, which is really, -- to arrive at this place, which is really, where we started. >> we all remember robert sweet, will had -- who had a job with an african-american woman she was with and he was made to do
public penance in the church. this was, clearly, from the start a threat to social order, the idea that there was a love between africans and whites. that is why they legislated it immediately. they had to have laws that kept people divided because they feared that, united, they would be a danger. tavis: this is a beautiful place and there is a significant piece of it that has subtitles. you hear these various languages being spoken. again, i was taken aback that these factors had to learn a few different languages. what was i hearing? >> you were hearing a native american language from the delaware tribe. if we would have done the pashtun tribe -- we would have done the powtan tribe, which is
where they landed, but it does not exist any longer. we also did the language from angola. when i wrote this it was all in english and it was bringing false that we were trying to -- false that we were trying to honor our ancestors and we were not sounding like them. we thought, we have to speak this in their own language in order to tap into these people were and give respect to them. tavis: for those who know even a little bit about the jamestown story, and nobody has ever suggested to me that jamestown is a love story. so, and when you say to me that the story you have written centered in jamestown is a love story, how do you -- ?
>> we imagine who that person of robert sweet was and the love between those teak -- two persons. and we look at people who escaped and we imagine what the choice was like. when you make the choice to go out into the wilderness where there were hostile natives -- these people were not the mayflower. this was not thanksgiving. these people from the start did not want the english settlers there. how bad must have been, how oppressive must it have been in jamestown for them to risk their lives to find something out there? for us, that was the story. because we all know the history. what is the love story? what is the love story of the human spirit that makes you risk everything -- a death -- to go out there and find a new way of
life that those people worry rejecting -- were rejecting what the english put upon them? and that rejection of the english eventually came to fruition in the american revolution. that is where it started, in making the choice that says, no, i'm sorry, that is not acceptable. i will take my chances of there. tavis: in your creative universe, where did this come from and why? >> i have a great company and we were workshop in all summer and i was interested in telling this story for many years. this was the opportunity. i have a beautiful committed company of 23 actors, three musicians who were ready to go on this journey. my life at the time reflected my need to tell this story as well. the idea that there is the path
we choose and the paths we choose our sometimes lined with danger, or the unknown. i needed to find that for myself. tavis: am i supposed to ask you to unpack that, or am i supposed to leave that alone? >> [laughter] tavis: is that an opening board are you trying to tell me to keep it moving? i will take that as trying to keep it moving. back to the plate. you are not just an actor or a writer or a director. you have a music critic on this. >> i wrote a song with my brother, dave. there are about six songs in the play. most of them are traditional hymns and folk songs from as far back as we could find them. some are not historical
accurate, maybe 50 years after jamestown one of the songs was written. but we did the best we could to find the music. tavis: you have a record coming out pretty soon. >> yes. i did a record with event for the rogues gallery. and it is coming out in europe -- with a band called the rogues' gallery. and it is coming out in europe and i'm going to tour. i'm kind of scared. tavis: you are scared? >> i have done it before. i opened for pearl jam -- tavis: wait a minute, you opened for pearl jam and you are scared? [laughter] >> that is true. but we were the opener and that was loud rock-and-roll. this is more sensitive story telling.
tavis: for those who have not seen it, you are singing and playing both? >> i am singing. my dad was a musician and my brother is a very talented musician. my mom was a magician. -- musician. tavis: you are a wonderful new humanitarian and a lot of people will not be surprised about this. we had to adjust our taping because he had a prior commitment that cause us to push our taping back. view, today, were at a prison. -you, today, were at a prison. >> yes. tavis: what were you doing? >> the actors group works with incarcerated inmates. we do 8 week workshops. we go once a week for about four and half hours.
we do workshops with these guys, pretty hard-core dudes. they are there for various reasons. we do not want to know the reasons. the point is to reduce the recidivism rates. and we do great works. the guys testified that it turns their lives around and they find ways to communicate that is productive and not destructive through the emotional work they do through this theater workshop. gang, i came to realize years ago that being in a theater company is not enough. it is one of our responsibilities to find as many things as we can do to help, particularly in this economy. we've got education programs with children in the inner city
area. we start of those programs through volunteerism because of the cuts in the public school system in california. we figured we could fill in the gap. every day we have either grade school, middle school or high school kids working on finding their voice creatively. we also have reduced our ticket prices as well in this economy. we figured it would be more important that the theater be full in the community and keep going with are then charged to much money than people can afford. tavis: i made a joke earlier about your character in the "shawshank redemption" and now you are like that in real life. >> but i get to leave.
tavis: and you did in the movie, to. but i just thought about that, you are like that in real life now. >> i do it as part of the gift we are given. i have been so lucky in this profession and i just thing if gives me so much to give back that i almost feel it is a selfish thing because i get so much out of it. tavis: that is beautiful to hear. it is beautiful to see more of that. back to the arts, and the changes you have made and the adjustment of ticket prices and the programs for kids -- all wonderful work. do you ever get the sense that we are losing our appreciation for the arts? you said you did not want this to be an elitist thing. i wonder if people have an
appreciation for the arts like they once had. >> we all have access to the movies. we all have access to music. but we do not have access to theater. part of the problem with that is something i figured out when we were touring spain. we had packed crowds every night and we had kids in there with nose rings and dyed green here and stuff -- died green hair and stuff. i was wondering about that. our first exposure in the united states is not so good. music, if your parents have any taste, it is the beatles or mozart or beethoven. music, we have the most gifted animators creating great stories. visual arts, your parents can take you to a museum and assure you visual arts.
in theater, our first experience, most of us, is watching a very bad high school play and you are there because your friend is in it and use where he will never go through this pain again. tavis: [laughter] >> you will never watch another willie lomond. it would be better if the state makes it available to the children in schools so that they see high quality mind blowing theatre at an early age. that creates appreciation. that creates a desire to see. that happened in france and england and spain. it is a smart thing to do. we have begun opening our doors to children. we do free theater in the park on sundays, and saturdays and sundays in the summer if we do
free shakespeare. hundreds of kids come and we hope that by doing that they will build an appreciation so that when they become teenagers they will come back to this building and be with us. tavis: did tim robbins get started in a bad high school play? >> yes, i played in the cyrano de bergerac and i had no right to play in that play. tavis: [laughter] how is it at this point in your life you are making decisions about what you will do next? i mean, you are so busy. i saw the production and your neck deep in this thing. how're you doing? and if -- how're you doing? and figuring out how to do the hollywood movie thing? -- how are you doing that and figuring out how to do the hollywood moving thinmovie thin.
>> you do a movie and is eight weeks out of your life and you start doing one after the other and you start to feel like, what are you doing? that becomes a question. i have the epperson to do what i want to do and as long as i can do it and -- i have the opportunity to do what i want and to do it as long as i can, mattersat is what i to me. if i can do that all my life, there is certainly more happiness in that. certainly more happiness than slogging along and doing things i now to crazy about. tavis: i have heard actress to say, you have to pay the bills. >> old age, yeah -- oh, yeah, i do that, too. but the last one i got pretty lucky on.
a guy to be in new orleans for nine weeks. i just heard so much great music -- i got to be in new orleans for nine weeks. i just got to hear so much great music. tavis: when are you doing in the green lantern? >> i play the father of the bad guy. actually, my actions result in almost the destruction of the world. if i had been a better parent -- tavis: [laughter] >> i do not think peter saarsgard would want to destroy the world. tavis: we all know better parents. is this thing slated to come out yet? >> yes, the summer, i think. tavis: everybody has been talking about this for a long
time, the green lantern. >> yes, it is one to be a big green thing. tavis: and with the play, have you been touring? >> we have been touring all over the place. we have been in 40 states with this production. we have been in four continents. we want to tour this one all over the world. it is a big one, though. it does not fit the economic model, so we need help in doing that. we need people who would see why it is an important thing to bring to various communities. but we have relationships all over the country with various universities and theaters. tavis: it is cough "break the whip" -- it is called "break the with being written and
directed and music by -- >> i do not want to take credit for that. the music is by dave. tavis: it is set to open this week in los angeles. good to have you with us. that is our show for tonight. until next time, keep the faith. i[captioning made possible by kcet public television] >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org >> i'm tavis smiley. join me next time with oscar winner philip seymour hoffman purify his new movie open quote geckos -- philip seymour hoffman on his new movie "jack goes boating." >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i am james. >> to everyone making a difference, you help us all live better. supports tavis smiley. tavis and nationwide insurance, working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it.